The Fruitless Search for Perfection in Music v.2
Originally published in Circulation Magazine
At the age of around fourteen or fifteen, I decided to take on the somewhat unusual task of creating a diddley bow. Inspired by a clip from the 2008 film 'It Might Get Loud', Jack White crafted a single-stringed guitar-esque instrument in the space of around half an hour. Plugged into a distortion pedal, White somehow made what resembled music. In an undeniably cocky manner, he then quips: “who says you need to buy a guitar?”. This was a long way from the professional, sleek production that is capable of modern digital programmes, or even the ego-driven leather jacket-bound frontmen of countless indie bands that seemed both unobtainable and fake to me. The idea that I could build an instrument, such as White had, and make my own music didn’t just seem appealing to me, but it also served as an important lesson. Music was no longer fogged by the confusing and far-off professionalism that it had first appeared to be, it was something that could be built by my own two hands.
The Western history of the diddley bow dictates it as an entry-level instrument that was created in America's deep south by the African-American community, however, the actual history of the instrument unsurprisingly goes back to Africa itself. The actual construction of a diddley bow seems to vary greatly but typical resembles a plank of wood with a single string and some form of bridge to create distance between the plank and string. The instrument can then be played with a metal slide, a glass bottle, a stick or just about anything that you want to.
So with the engineering know-how of my dad and my grandfather’s trusty old vice, I did what White had shown me. Admittedly, it took me somewhat longer than White and the sounds I achieved from it were nowhere near those he could create. It was imperfect and its utility was questionable; bluntly, it didn’t really work all that well. A slab of wood, a jam jar, a guitar pickup and a guitar string does not spark thoughts of musical enlightenment after all. Yet this didn’t bother me too much; it didn’t need to be perfect. The fact that I had made it myself was enough proof to me that music didn’t have to be a shiny, slick and faultless product. The diddley bow came to represent a raw dedication and simplicity that can be seen in a vast array of DIY music. Most of us are guilty of obsessing over perfection, and this goes for both musicians and listeners of music, constantly searching for the ever-distant ‘perfect’ sound. It reaches a point where we overlook the simpler beauties of music.
DIY music represents, to me, those simpler beauties. The vocals are crooked, the chords are crude and the production is callous, but it retains a natural and very humanistic beauty. Albums such as The Glow, Pt. 2 by The Microphones or The Mountain Goats’ Zopilote Machine capture an emotional state that is void of air-conditioned rockstarisms and stereotypical romanticised love. It’s relatable without pandering to the audience and most importantly it shows to me, and hopefully others that imperfection is not just a natural part of being a human being but in fact something that can be beautiful and desirable. White himself is a perfect example, crafting a long career out of imperfections. Plastic guitars and tape recordings have been a key aspect of his sound for close to two decades. He has often been the champion of the eccentricities that imperfection affords us.
Music can be emotional and raw, and we shouldn’t remove those things from it in the fruitless search for perfection. DIY music will remain incredibly important to me as it helps to remind me, just as my diddley bow does, that perfectionism is a pointless goal. Just like my one-stringed guitar, we are imperfect. Just like DIY music, we are full of mistakes and quirks. It’s perhaps no surprise that in a world where photoshop rules and perfectly produced music dominates that many of us search for the comfortable relatability of imperfection. Vinyl, tapes, film cameras, the list goes on. In a world where we are constantly reminded to be perfect, it is nice to know that DIY music will champion the human reality of imperfection.